Prison boss toughs it out in 'racist' dispute

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THE head of the Prison Service yesterday denied he was a racist and refused to resign following his claim that black people were more likely to die in custody while being restrained because they were physically different to whites.

Richard Tilt said: "I am not a racist. I have never been a racist. I never shall be a racist. I don't think the question of resignation comes into it. I was simply sharing with viewers the advice I had been offered. I was not giving my opinions," he said referring to the interview on Wednesday. Mark Layton, a haematologist at King's College Hospital, London, and expert on sickle-cell anaemia, backed Mr Tilt and said people with the disease were more likely to die as a result of being asphyxiated. Nearly all sufferers of the disease are black. "Broadly speaking, he is factually correct to say that there's an increased risk". But he added that the Prison Service should take extra care to make sure no prisoners were placed at risk while being restrained.

Mr Tilt's comments follow the death of a black man, Alton Manning, in custody. An inquest jury ruled on Wednesday that he was unlawfully killed at at a private jail in 1995 after he was placed in a neck lock during a struggle. Seven officers at Blakenhurst Prison, Worcestershire, have been suspended while the Crown Prosecution Service considers whether to bring charges.

Mr Manning was the sixth black person out of a total of seven who have died in prisons while being restrained since 1992. Mr Tilt, trying to explain the figure, cited Prison Service research suggesting sickle-cell anaemia could be to blame. His claims were rejected by experts, including the Home Office pathologist Nat Cary.

Mr Tilt yesterday apologised if his comments had caused offence and appealed for people to look at the whole interview rather than just his comments on "positional asphyxia", in which a prisoner being restrained can suffocate - a condition allegedly exacerbated by sickle-cell anaemia, in which the sufferers' blood carries less oxygen.

"I am extremely sorry if the remarks I made on Newsnight have caused offence ... they were completely inadvertent," he told Radio 4's World at One. He had been "concerned" by so many deaths involving black prisoners and had commissioned research at that point. His aim, Mr Tilt made clear, was "reducing the risks to people when we were using physical control". The study, published on his instructions, had "suggested there was a potential link between sickle-cell disorder and these incidents".

Controversial remarks to the BBC had been "in the context of examining the whole problem and passing on the advice we had received". There was "no dispute" that there was a greater likelihood for sickle- cell disorder to occur in people of African origin, Mr Tilt said. "There is a potential risk, since sickle-cell disorder can cause death during a great deal of exertion and that is a potential problem." He was "extremely sorry" if his remarks were interpreted as racist.